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Kiss Me, Kate and “The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon”: Shakespeare’s Play Is Still the Thing
by Geoffrey Block
Chronologically midway between The Boys from Syracuse and West Side Story lies Kiss Me, Kate, Samuel and Bella Spewack’s liberal adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew with lyrics and music by Cole Porter. Although the version that eventually appeared on opening night, December 30, 1948, offered considerable pilfering of Shakespeare’s lines (compared with Syracuse and West Side) as well as cutting indispensable Shakespearean plot developments, the original May libretto draft contained still more of Shakespeare’s language and plot.
For George Abbott’s Boys from Syracuse, the plot, not the play, was the thing. Indeed, the plot was the play. For Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story, Shakespeare’s plot relied too heavily on chance, depriving young adults of their active agency to determine their destinies. He also concluded that a dead Juliet (Maria) served no useful dramatic purpose. In setting Shrew, the Spewacks and Porter tinkered with and shortened, but did not fundamentally alter the essential Shakespearean component of the plot in their play within a play, an abbreviated musical version of The Taming of the Shrew put on by characters in then-contemporary Baltimore who bear uncanny personal characteristics and more than a family resemblance to Shakespeare’s characters.
Nevertheless, even in the final version, much of the Shrew plot in Kiss Me, Kate, albeit significantly abbreviated, overall made relatively few “unkind cuts” and retained a fair amount of Shakespearean dialogue. Some of Shakespeare’s prose inspired song titles, including “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” In the case of “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple” Porter pilfered so liberally from Shakespeare’s words that he inserted the attribution “Lyrics by Wm Shakespeare,” before playfully adding that the Bard’s words were “slightly altered by Cole Porter with apologies.”
Although the erudite Porter may have known more about the music of the Italian Renaissance than he let on, clearly he had no intention to flaunt this knowledge for a Broadway audience expecting to hear the popular musical argot of the era. Thus, for the most part, instead of attempting to incorporate Elizabethan or Italian Renaissance elements in setting the Shrew portions of the show, Porter elected to bring in generically Italian musical signifiers in order to distinguish Shakespeare’s story from the Baltimore backstage story. The latter is told through recognizable Broadway styles of the 1940s, as in the opening Baltimore ensemble show biz number, “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the bluesy “Why Can’t You Behave?” sung by the flirty Lois in the first act, and her jazzy “Always True to You in My Fashion” in the second act. Porter adopted a more contemporary Italian flavor by setting as tarantellas “I Sing of Love” and the main section of “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” A tarantella is a rapid, even manic, southern Italian dance in 6/8 meter frequently used to embody the Italian ethos in 19th-century symphonic music, perhaps most famously in the finale of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and in popular Italian songs such as “Funiculi, Funiculà,” published in 1880 but still well-known in the late 1940s. Also, in “Were Thine That Special Face” Porter inserted a more generalized Latin beguine rhythmic accompaniment, as he did in his durable 1930s hit “Begin the Beguine.”
A subtler Italian appropriation comes in the orchestral tag to “We Open in Venice,” which opens the Shrew play and serves as a counterpart to the Baltimore show opener, “Another Op’nin.’” The tag offers a brief but literal quotation of the opening of the “Miserere” from act IV of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, perhaps as a musical pun in reference to the “misery” of an endless road tour for the “troupe of strolling players” introduced at the outset of the song. Unfortunately, this clever Verdi reference vanished in the 1999 Broadway revival and its recording, and, since it is no longer included in rental scores, the reference is destined to be omitted in future productions. Porter also offers several quasi-Renaissance moments, for example when he inserts a stylistic allusion to an a cappella pseudo-madrigal for Bianca and her suitors in “Tom, Dick or Harry.” Porter even unmistakably transforms “Why Can’t You Behave?” from a blues into a Renaissance English dance, the pavane, albeit with stylistically inappropriate lush modern harmonies and orchestrations, in Bianca’s wedding march. Yet another nod to Renaissance musical style occurs in several Shrew songs that display the characteristic LONG-short-short figure characteristic of the 16th-century French chanson and Italian canzona (e.g., “Tom, Dick or Harry”), and in several chord progressions (e.g., the introduction to “I Hate Men”) that simulate the modal harmonic language of Shakespeare’s time.
Geoffrey Block, Distinguished Professor of Music History at the University of Puget Sound, is, in addition to Enchanted Evenings, author of Ives: “Concord” Sonata (Cambridge University Press), Richard Rodgers (Yale University Press) and editor of The Richard Rodgers Reader (Oxford University). He is also the Series Editor of Oxford’s Broadway Legacies.